by Mark Lilla New York Times
It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country. It is also a beautiful thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. It’s an extraordinary success story.
But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.
One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake.
If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.
The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.
But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good.
In large part, this is because of high school history curricula, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)
When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?
This campus-diversity consciousness has over the years filtered into the liberal media, and not subtly. Affirmative action for women and minorities at America’s newspapers and broadcasters has been an extraordinary social achievement — and has even changed, quite literally, the face of right-wing media, as journalists like Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham have gained prominence. But it also appears to have encouraged the assumption, especially among younger journalists and editors, that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.
Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the “first X to do Y” — is told and retold.
Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.
But it is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision.
So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan’s playbook. He seized the Democratic Party away from its identity-conscious wing, concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America’s role in the post-1989 world. By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition. Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.
The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis.
This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.
Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.
We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.
As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)
Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their system of government and the major forces and events in our history. A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote.
A post-identity liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion. And it would take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping world politics, especially their historical dimension.
Some years ago I was invited to a union convention in Florida to speak on a panel about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941. The hall was full of representatives from local chapters — men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos. We began by singing the national anthem, and then sat down to listen to a recording of Roosevelt’s speech. As I looked out into the crowd, and saw the array of different faces, I was struck by how focused they were on what they shared. And listening to Roosevelt’s stirring voice as he invoked the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear — freedoms that Roosevelt demanded for “everyone in the world” — I was reminded of what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.
by David Remnick New Yorker
The Trump campaign and Presidency have sparked not only an ever-expanding literature of biography, investigation, and pre-history but also a variety of polemics and essays—pointed attacks on the President, his character, his intentions, his abuses, and the political climate that he has created.
Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale who is best known in academic circles for his comprehensive studies of modern Europe, published a best-selling polemic called “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” a primer on authoritarian tendencies of the past and how to resist them now.
Ta-Nehisi Coates published “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” a series of essays on race, written during the Obama era, that concludes with the current predicament: “The white supremacy swirling around Trump is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power.”
Now into the arena comes a distinctly more conservative brand of liberal and Trump opponent, Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia, published an Op-Ed in the Times declaring, “One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” His article, written while Clinton voters were still in a kind of disbelieving haze, outraged not a few readers of the paper with its blasts at “the fixation on diversity in our schools” and the “moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force.”
Lilla is hardly indifferent to injustices against women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color, but he claims too many liberals and leftists, indulging in a politics of “narcissism,” are “indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”
Lilla, who has expanded that article into his new, brief book, “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics,” insists his is the pragmatic view: that in order to secure progress for overlooked and oppressed peoples—in order to advance a liberal economic, environmental, and social agenda—political power must be won, which means that elections must be won. At the moment, the Democratic Party—from elections for the White House to state legislatures—is failing.
The Democrats, he says, were once the party of the working class; now the Democrats are largely a loose coalition of educated coastal élites and minorities. Why is it now possible to drive across the country for thousands of miles without hitting a blue state or county? How did the Democrats lose a decisive number of Obama voters to someone like Donald Trump? Lilla believes that identity politics is a central part of the answer.
When I read Lilla’s book and then talked with him for The New Yorker Radio Hour, I found much to disagree with, not least his cutting dismissals of “social-justice warriors” or movements like Black Lives Matter, which he sees as a “textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” Lilla was once an editor atThe Public Interest and a neoconservative on domestic issues, though not on foreign policy; Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were his elders and allies. He still writes with marked ambivalence and irritation about the contemporary left, particularly as he sees it on university campuses. Beverly Gage, Adam Gopnik, Michelle Goldberg, and others have already delivered serious critiques of Lilla’s argument about identity politics.
And yet there’s little question that Trump and the distorting lenses of the right-wing and white-nationalist media have succeeded in inflating the “threat” of identity politics and political correctness as a key component of their rhetoric and electoral strategy. Steve Bannon represented Trump’s id on this subject and made it a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign, his Inaugural Address, and the early months of his Presidency. Lilla, who disdains Bannon for myriad political and moral reasons, also thinks that he may have a tactical point. And this is where our conversation began.
remnick: We’re speaking a couple of weeks after Charlottesville, and a lot of things are converging all of a sudden, not for the first time: history, politics, identity. How would you rate the national conversation we’re having at the moment, when it comes to race, identity, and politics?
lilla: Well, I wouldn’t call it a conversation. It’s an overused word. I’m a little tired of it.
remnick: “The national conversation.”
lilla: “The national conversation.” “We need to have a conversation” about something—which is a euphemism for avoiding something and a real conflict. But it’s something that’s been simmering below the surface for a very long time—it’s not that we haven’t been talking about identity issues. But to see this flash out from the right, very suddenly, just brings home, I think, the incendiary nature of this, and how, when passions are excited about identity issues, conversation stops.
Not many journalists picked up on this, but the demonstration was actually a quotation of a demonstration in May, 1933, when Nazi students, shortly after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, marched through the University of Berlin at night, with torches, into the courtyard of the university. That’s where the famous book burning took place. They knew exactly what they were doing.
remnick: Then what’s the proper response to such a demonstration? Persuasion?
lilla: No, the first thing you do when fascists show up in the street is you show up, too. And that’s what people did. I have all sorts of problems with the Antifa people—we need to stay very far away from them—but look at what happened in Boston over the weekend. You had all these people show up. There really weren’t many people on the other side. And so I think there are moments like this, which are rare, of absolute moral clarity. People show their true colors in these moments. I guess the question for me now is, How do we, on our side—by which I mean, I’m a liberal Democrat, I’m a partisan—how do we use a moment like this and not get used by a moment like this?
remnick: What do you mean used by a moment like this? There is a quote recently that Steve Bannon, of all people, delivered: “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I’ve got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focussed on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” And you have said that it works for them—it being identity politics—but it doesn’t work for us. And there seems to be some link—not that I’m saying that your politics, by any chance, are anything like Steve Bannon’s—but you’re saying a similar thing, aren’t you?
lilla: I just think it’s an objective fact. I mean, he has no reason to lie about this. And the past two generations of our politics, I think, demonstrate exactly that.
remnick: Let’s define what identity politics is, because it’s a phrase that’s used now in all sorts of ways. And it seems to me that identity politics has been at the root of politics for half of forever.
lilla: Well, certainly on the American right, ever since the Ku Klux Klan, we’ve had explicitly framed identity politics. That is in the sharpest sense. Now, you can say that people think of themselves as Italians or Jews or Germans, and then they become a kind of interest group. We’ve had interest-group politics before. But there’s a kind of essentialism to identity politics, where it means going out into the democratic space, where you’re struggling for power and using identity as an appeal for other people to vote for your side. And I think Bannon’s completely right, and I’ll stand by what I said: that it works for their side and it doesn’t work for our side, for all kinds of reasons.
Now, that is not to say we don’t talk about identity. To understand any social problem in this country, you have to understand identity. And we’re more aware of that than ever, and that’s been a very good thing. But, to address those problems with politics, we have to abandon the rhetoric of difference, in order to appeal to what we share, so people who don’t share this identity somehow can have a stake, and feel something that other people are experiencing.
To give you an example, I’m not a black motorist. I will never be a black motorist. I don’t know what it’s like to look in the rearview mirror of a car and see the lights flashing and feel my stomach churn. But I am a citizen. And that person is a fellow-citizen. And, if we can make the case that there are citizens in this country who can’t just go for a drive without being worried about this, and they won’t be equally protected by the law, I think I can make the case to people who aren’t black that’s a terrible thing, right? And so I want to frame the issue in terms of basic values and principles that we share in order to establish sympathy and empathy and identification with someone else.
remnick: But, Mark, what are you asking African-Americans to do? Be a little less specific? More polite, somehow? You’re asking them to be less aggressive in their demand for justice, whether it’s on the road or on the street? I understand the over-all yearning for a more generalized rhetoric of “us,” of liberal values, of civil rights. I’m not sure why you have the disdain you do, the suspicion that you do, for a group like Black Lives Matter. You’re saying that they’re going about it in all the wrong ways, unless I’m misunderstanding.
lilla: Well, to read the full passage of what I said about Black Lives Matter, I said, “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. There’s no denying that by publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement mobilized supporters and delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience.” I’m totally onboard with that.
remnick: So what did Black Lives Matter do that you’re, at best, ambivalent about—and very critical, really?
lilla: And then I say, “But there’s no denying that the movement’s decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and its law-enforcement institutions and to use Mau Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence played into the hands of the Republican right.”
remnick: But, Mark. “Mau Mau tactics.” Are you familiar with—
lilla: Of course I remember it. What was that confrontation they had with Hillary Clinton, if not that? They were shouting down people at various venues. No, those were Mau Mau tactics, sure.
remnick: You’re comfortable with that phrase?
lilla: Sure. I mean, “Mau Mau tactics,” I’m also thinking of Tom Wolfe—
remnick: No, I remember the opening of the Tom Wolfe piece. But I also know where Tom Wolfe stands politically, which is much farther than you’re saying you are to the right.
lilla: Well, I’m not to the right.
remnick: So, some of the criticism that’s aimed at your book has less to do with the generalized demand for a more common politics and a desire to win than it does with a certain tonal thing. In Beverly Gage’s review of your book, she says—and I’m not quoting, but I’m remembering—that you seem disappointed in your students. There’s a tone to the book that you have been offended by politics on campus to a degree that seems outsized. Can you address that? What’s been your experience on campus of identity politics that offends?
lilla: Well, to begin with, what leads to my frustration and my tone is that I’m sick of noble defeats. I’m tired of losing. I’m sickened by the fact that Donald Trump is in power right now, and not just that but that Republicans control two-thirds of our state legislatures, two-thirds of our governorships, twenty-four states outright. If they win two more they can call a constitutional convention. To my mind, that is the biggest threat to every group that Democrats care about. That’s the most important threat.
remnick: And it’s impossible to have both at once? You can’t have a winning strategy without maintaining some semblance of a concentration on identity?
lilla: The distinction I’m trying to make—between analyzing a social problem and developing a political program in order to win power—people who are in movement politics fail to see the distinction, I think. Because identity politics is maximalizing. That’s how you succeed—you see this as the only issue. There’s a difference between speaking truth to power and seizing power to defend the truth. And those require very different things, right? And it’s important to speak truth to power out in society. We’re journalists, right? We need to write about this kind of stuff. But, when we go out on the stump, it makes no sense to call out to various groups, as Hillary Clinton did, and inevitably leave people out. She would list the groups that liberal Democrats care about today: African-Americans, gays and lesbians, women. One out of every four Americans is evangelical. Thirty-seven per cent of Americans live in the South. Seventeen per cent, as many as there are, of African-Americans in this country live in rural areas. There are different ways in which people think of themselves, right? And those people did not feel called out to.
remnick: Why do you think they felt called out to by Barack Obama and not by Hillary Clinton? What was the key difference there?
lilla: Precisely because Obama did not list groups. Because he talked about “we.” He didn’t always finish his sentences—he would say, “That’s not who we are,” and wouldn’t quite tell us who we are. But he understood that. Both Obama and [Bill] Clinton understood that playing identity politics in electoral politics is a disaster for the liberal side.
remnick: So, you don’t think, to any degree, that the Trump victory, however narrow it was, was the result of a post-Obama hangover, of having had an African-American President for eight years?
lilla: Oh, I’m sure that’s true. I mean, there are so many things—it’s overdetermined, any one explanation of this election. But we also know that there are people who voted for Obama and voted for Trump, and they’re kind of a mystery to us. But I think we get too focussed on Presidential elections in order to read where the country is.
remnick: Because the Democrats are getting killed on a local level, on the state level.
lilla: Right. And what people in identity movements haven’t faced up to is that institutional politics will trump movement politics all the time. We have a constitutional right to abortion in this country. And there are large sections of the country where a woman cannot get an abortion. That’s not because we haven’t been speaking truth to power, or we haven’t been organizing, or tweeting enough, or marching enough. It’s because we haven’t gone out into those states and established a beachhead. By being able to go out and speak to those people and get them on our side.
remnick: Mark, would you have written this book if Hillary Clinton had won? It was a victory by Trump of some eighty-thousand votes and some key counties and three Midwestern states. Would your argument hold up if it had gone just the other way?
lilla: Yes, because it’s not about Trump. It’s really about the change, electorally, at the state and local level, which is really where the action happens now. That’s where the fight against unions is happening, that’s where the fight against public schools is happening, that’s where the fight against voting rights for African-Americans is happening. I probably wouldn’t have been spurred to write it, but that’s where the story is. But, even more, we are held in contempt—
remnick: Who’s the “we” in this sentence?
lilla: Whenever I use the “we,” I’m talking about liberals. Liberalism has become a dirty word. Now, that’s largely the result of very successful work in the right-wing media in order to demonize us—
remnick: And one of the things right-wing media does is take some examples of exaggerated identity politics, in your terms—cartoonish moments—and blow them up on Fox or Breitbart or the rest, and make it seem as if every student at Columbia or Oberlin or the University of Chicago is inflamed with this. Am I wrong?
lilla: Oh yeah. They are absolutely able to exploit things and exaggerate them like that. However, when they use it to show a mentality, a way in which we think about things, whether on campus or elsewhere, I think we are exposed. When some of the campus craziness happens, it reveals something that is there in the university that doesn’t always take the craziest form. And the way in which we have ended up educating, and in my view miseducating, the liberal élite in this country for political action.
remnick: What’s your experience on campus, in real life? You’ve been at the University of Chicago, you’re at Columbia now, you’ve been elsewhere. Is the cartoon true? How much does this enter your life as a teacher, as a faculty member? Or is it all blown up? What’s the reality of it, day to day?
lilla: Well, my case is a little special. I don’t belong to a department—I have a university-wide appointment—so I don’t have to sit in on faculty decisions about hiring and things like that. I teach “Homer to Virginia Woolf” to eighteen-year-olds. If I don’t send out signals that we’re going to talk about identity, they don’t. We talk about the books. But I see them after they go out, after their first year, and I can see that many of them get absorbed in this. They come into my office, and I just listen to them. I don’t argue with them.
remnick: And what do you hear?
lilla: What I see, essentially, is that, to the extent that they are political, their political interest is circumscribed by either how they see their own identity or what they think identity issues are. I’m struck by the lack of interest in military affairs, class structure, economics that’s not economics in order to get into business school. There’s a lack of interest in American religion. All of these subjects that might help you understand the country in a richer way. They’re very much drawn to classes that are about themselves. Of course, they’re eighteen to twenty-two, and they’re also searching—searching politically and to situate themselves in terms of racial and other identities. And, certainly, sexually, they’re trying to figure themselves out. And so they’re drawn to classes that speak to that.
remnick: But I can almost hear the listener questioning: O.K., there are two white guys in a room discussing this. There are identity issues that really are of tremendous urgency, whether it has to do with sexuality, race, religion, and all the rest. “Easy for you to say”—easy for me to say, perhaps. Why shouldn’t those things be of tremendous urgency to an eighteen-year-old or a nineteen-year-old? Or do you think it just overwhelms everything else?
lilla: It’s the latter. I mean, I understand. These are real subjects worth studying. But when you think of what should happen during these four years, especially if you want to create liberal citizens who think of themselves as citizens and are prepared to engage, and that means understanding the whole country, it leads to a kind of truncated sense of what politics is. It gives a distorted picture of what’s going on in the rest of the country. And so we end up producing liberal élites who are clueless about the rest of the country, and clueless about all sorts of other themes, especially class. There are a lot of progressives saying all of the same things, progressives who’ve written books attacking identity politics. (Walter Benn Michaels is probably the best known.) And they are saying that it’s taken our eyes off class in this country. I’m very sympathetic to that point of view. We end up talking to ourselves and training young people in this limited range of issues that tend to be self-referential, so that when they go out there, and are ready to engage, they’re incapable of talking in large themes.
remnick: Mark, it seemed that the Bernie Sanders campaign was almost all about class. He had a real ambivalence toward, even antipathy toward, what you describe as identity politics, no?
lilla: He did, yeah. And we can talk about the Bernie campaign. Young people were attracted to that once they saw it, right? But this was new for them. They weren’t hearing that on campus. What we haven’t talked about is that it’s a question of vision. Liberalism from Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the seventies had a picture of the kind of country we wanted to create. What we were as citizens, what was owed to us, what we owed to each other. It was a political vision that legitimized the use of government to build social solidarity and defend equal rights. And the New Deal set the terms of political debate, even on the Republican side. For example, Nixon proposed a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, he proposed a national health-insurance program.
remnick: But when the early civil-rights leaders came to Franklin Roosevelt and made a series of demands about voting rights, civil rights, Roosevelt famously said, “Make me.” You have to go out there and make me. You have to create a politics that pushed the Democratic Party and its leadership to act on it.
remnick: And that’s protest politics. In your book, you’re saying we need less protest politics and we need more mayors. Don’t we need both?
lilla: It’s a question of our time. There was a time in this country from the fifties up until 1980 when all the action was in movement politics, and that’s what made the change. As my colleague Ira Katznelson writes in his book about the New Deal, the Dixiecrats prevented many of the programs from helping—
remnick: But it was protest politics married to Lyndon Johnson. It was not just Martin Luther King, it was also L.B.J.—which is something that Hillary Clinton pointed out, to her peril. So why don’t we need both?
lilla: Well, at the time, identity groups understood that that’s what this was about. And they spoke not in terms of difference but about what we shared. So, African-Americans had been—and still are—disenfranchised from the great democratic “we.” That we all are citizens and they’re being denied their rights as citizens. The same thing with women. So it was, in a sense, wanting to actualize the vision that the Democratic Party had and make it real. Then what happened, though, was that Reagan came along with a very different vision of the country, that said, No, we’re not a country about solidarity; government is the problem—essentially, we’re a country of individuals, you’re in your families, churches, good luck to you, we’re going to get off your back, have a happy day. Now, we know where that led. That vision has come to an end, and Donald Trump helped to bury it. No one believes anymore that a tax cut’s going to solve anything.
We now find ourselves in a visionless society. The two large visions of what we are as a country and where we can go have both atrophied and died. So, in a way, this is actually an interesting opportunity for us. It’s really up to us now to give Americans a different way of thinking about what we share and what we can do.
remnick: And is your hope simply a return to the Roosevelt dispensation?
lilla: No, that can’t be done, because our situation is very different. To begin with, we’ve learned that the government can only do so much, and that certain programs don’t work, and we understand that better. Our economic situation is completely different. We have a globalized economy. It’s no longer possible to organize labor in the way we used to. Women are a part of the workforce. All kinds of things have changed. But our basic principles, I think, haven’t changed, and that’s that we stick together. Citizens are not roadkill. We take care of each other. We stand for the equal protection under the law. If we can only articulate what those principles might mean in the present, I think we’ll be able to move on from our obsession with, or our self-limitation to, identity, in order to reach out to people we haven’t been able to reach out to.
remnick: Mark, tell me about your own political journey. You grew up in the Midwest, and somewhere along the way you were an editor at The Public Interest, which was identified as a neocon magazine. Is that the way you would identify yourself, politically, and have you changed?
lilla: No, I think the world has more changed around me. I grew up in a place, Macomb County, Michigan, which is famous among Democrats and journalists.
remnick: It’s the tipping point.
lilla: It’s the home of the Reagan Democrats. Books have been written about it. In the early nineteen-sixties, it was the most liberal suburban county in America. This is flat-on Detroit. Eminem’s 8 Mile Road. I grew up on 12 Mile Road. And 8 Mile Road was a racial barrier. In 1972, George Wallace won the Michigan primary. He won more votes there than in any other county north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The state and the county ended up going for Nixon, and they never looked back. Sometimes they voted for Democrats, but essentially they became the white working class that’s resentful of liberals and Democrats. I saw this happen in my family. I saw this happen in my neighborhood.
remnick: Your family was working-class Democrat that became Reagan Democrat?
lilla: My particular family was very liberal. My sister was a Democratic county commissioner in Macomb County. But I saw these people who were neighbors and so on, and a lot changed, and they became unreachable, for a lot of reasons that would take a while to elaborate—a lot of it had to do with Vietnam. So, ever since, I’ve been wondering why it is that we’ve not been able to reach these people, trying to understand them. I started at Wayne State, putting myself through school by working nearly full-time, and finally I got a scholarship to go to Michigan, and it was a very different environment. When I was at Wayne State, I was an evangelical, and I was involved in prayer meetings with black members, and belonged to the Union for Radical Political Economics.
remnick: You were an evangelical Marxist, in a sense.
lilla: Yeah. And then I went to Michigan and suddenly found myself being lectured to about the working class by the children of executives of Ford Motor Company. They were running off on their fancy vacations and had contempt for the people I grew up around, they had great contempt for religion. And I reacted against that. I was drawn then to The Public Interest and what neoconservatism was in the seventies. And the people who attracted me were Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell, who was sort of my mentor, and Nathan Glazer, with whom I wrote a book. And those people were pre-McGovern Democrats.
remnick: So, not the Commentary crowd. It was something different.
lilla: No, no. They were interested in foreign policy and Jewish affairs, and I was never that. So I became an editor of this public-policy magazine, because I had a public-policy degree. I had studied urban policy as an undergraduate. And then, in 1980, Reagan was elected and I saw this world utterly transformed by power. Everyone was going to Washington, talking about the Laffer curve. And at that point I got off the bus. But I remain, kind of—and in that sense, I am a dinosaur—at heart, a pre-McGovern, blue-collar Democrat.
remnick: What was called at one point the Bobby Kennedy coalition.
lilla: Sure. It was not Gene McCarthy.
remnick: And how do you identify yourself politically now?
lilla: I consider myself a centrist liberal. But it’s not even a question of where we are on right and left anymore, you know? The problem I’m having, and I try to make the case in the book, is that, as identity consciousness has increased among liberals, political consciousness has decreased. So, I’m a political liberal. Cultural liberalism is another thing, and I’m sympathetic to a lot of it, but I think our energies need to be devoted to seizing power and developing a vision of where we want to take the country. A rainbow is not a vision of the kind of world that we want to build together.
remnick: Do you see politicians on the horizon, whether on the national or local level, that have a political vision and a political rhetoric that you find appealing?
lilla: No. I mean, our bench is very short. There are people who I feel get this. Joe Biden certainly gets it. I don’t know if there are any younger people coming up. And that’s what worries me. Because, within the Party, the people who work in the Party, the people who are active in the Party, are very focussed on not only groups but on the idea that we’re putting together a coalition. And, you know, what was extraordinary about Reagan is that, up until 1980, the Republican Party had all these warring factions and they didn’t have one message. And once Reagan offered up this very simple vision of the country, the differences between those groups became much less important, because they all saw themselves in this vision. And that’s what has to happen to us. We need to be able to put forward a vision so that African-Americans look at it and say, those are the principles I stand for, and white working class people look at it, too, and they’re not thinking so much about their differences.
remnick: Unless I misread your book, you seem to say that, in the interest of winning—and politics is about power, ultimately—the Democratic side ought to think about abandoning certain issues, certain kinds of rhetoric, in order to win. But abandoning certain things like full-throated opposition to bathroom bills will mean that certain people—transgender people, some of the most vulnerable people in our society—will get hurt. How does a party go about sacrificing people on the altar of the general good?
lilla: Well my main point is this, and I want to get this across: we cannot do anything for these groups we care about if we do not hold power. It is just talk. Therefore, our rhetoric in campaigning must be focussed on winning, so then we can help these people. An election is not about self-expression. It’s not a time to display everything we believe about everything. It’s a contest. And once you hold power, then you can do the things you want to do. Your rhetoric has to be mobilizing, and it’s got to mobilize—
remnick: But you can imagine how outraged a transgender person would feel about such a tactic?
lilla: Of course. Of course. And the situation of transgender people can be very, very difficult, especially young people, who feel trapped in a body. And suicide rates are terrible, and homeless rates are terrible. But let’s be concrete about this: transgender people make up less than one half of one per cent of the country. There is no electoral group that we’re trying to mobilize. That’s not to say that we don’t want to help them, and focus on that when we analyze our problems and when we get into power. But that is not how you seize power in this country, especially in the states we need to win. Look, we have the two coasts. We need to go to the middle of the country. And if we keep talking about groups, and small groups, and especially if we touch on anything that involves children and sexuality—that’s insane. You don’t campaign on the basis of that.
remnick: Mark, you mention Joe Biden as somebody who gets it. Joe Biden was probably the clearest and foremost voice for gay marriage in the Obama Administration.
lilla: Oh, of course, yeah, but how did we get gay marriage? It was not just that there was a fiat from above. On the contrary, it’s that this change happened socially. It happened in families, it happened at dinner tables, when children came out to their parents—sometimes parents came out to their kids.
remnick: But it also happened because you had people in the streets shouting, “We’re here. We’re queer.” Which is something that, in the book, you say will only get you a pat on the head. Didn’t that help get power, too? Didn’t Stonewall help get power, the civil-rights movement help get power?
lilla: Well, Stonewall certainly mobilized people to then focus on particular pieces of legislation, and also to mobilize in order to get research and work onaids and H.I.V. But that’s, again, just to focus on one particular issue and one particular group. And, if each group is just thinking about itself, it’s not thinking like a party. Party politics, right now, has to come first. Because we cannot help any of these people if we don’t get elected.
remnick: The slogan of Occupy Wall Street was “We Are the Ninety-nine Per Cent.” That’s a pretty big tent. What did you think of Occupy Wall Street?
lilla: Well, as I mentioned, nearly forty per cent of the country is Southern. One out of every four Americans is evangelical. I didn’t see those people represented there. You know, I thought it was, the fact that—
remnick: But that’s what the discussion was about. It was about class.
lilla: It was about class, but it was bourgeois activists who were there. And that’s fine, because at least someone was expressing outrage by the bailout of the banks and what happened after the crash. So I was happy that someone was saying anything. But it was theatre, right? And it doesn’t lead to anything else.
remnick: Was it helpful theatre?
lilla: Well, it was helpful in the sense that it certainly got liberals talking more about this, and it was just there that people were protesting. But by the time it descends into the drummers in Zuccotti Park, and people arguing into the night about which groups are being represented when they go up on the platform and speak, that just illustrates what’s wrong with us.
remnick: How so?
lilla: That we’re always about . . . Movement politics, I think, encourages people to radicalize their positions and to impose purity tests on each other. And so we’re always checking each other on our privilege or our positions. And that does nothing to seize power out there. That’s all about what you do within the group. Now the Women’s March was an extraordinary thing, and was worldwide. My wife and daughter were there. I was out of the country, or I would have been there. But it almost didn’t happen. Why is that? Because this woman in Hawaii had a very good idea and posted on Facebook: why don’t we show up in Washington and protest the fact that this President has spoken about women this way. What could be easier? And you know what happened afterward? She was attacked by black groups because she didn’t have a committee, she didn’t have other people represented—
remnick: But isn’t that a footnote—a glitch, really? I mean, look at the outcome!
lilla: I’m talking about the mentality that it reflects. And it hurts us in other ways. And one way in which it definitely did hurt us is that there was a group of pro-life feminists, religious feminists, who had asked to join the group, were accepted, and then, once word got around that they would be there, they were disinvited. That was an opportunity to build a bridge. Now, I’m second to none in my support of abortion rights—I’m an absolutist on a woman’s right to an abortion. But I also know that there are other issues we have to care about, and there’s got to be some way within the Democratic Party to accept that some people are going to have different views while still standing by the majority view. But when you’re involved in identity politics, you don’t see that. Your mind is not tuned. And nothing that you learn in the university prepares you to reach out and to speak thematically in this way.
Now, we not only have to speak about identity when it comes to understanding our social problems but we also want to change people’s hearts and minds. And that doesn’t happen through electoral politics. It happens through our churches, education, it happens through television—“Sesame Street,” “Murphy Brown,” all these shows sort of made this country a more tolerant place. But if we want to make people more tolerant, the psychology of that is very complicated. What we do know—and psychologists study these sorts of things—if you call someone a racist, they completely shut down. You’re not persuading, you’re not building a bridge to that person. And while it’s satisfying to speak the full truth about something, and I understand that urge, if you’re trying to persuade people and move them a little toward your position, you’ve got to find common ground. And that’s very hard to take for people who are in movements, and feel frustrated that things aren’t going their way.
remnick: If you look at those movements, though, there are always more radical voices and less radical voices. You look at the aids activism—Larry Kramer was a radical voice, and said things, and still says things, that make people crazy, and that seem extreme, and all the rest. But couldn’t you argue that it depends on where you are in time? In other words, without a Larry Kramer, without some of the radicals in the civil-rights movement or in the women’s-rights movement, that, in fact, things might not push forward quite as well, or quite as quickly, or quite as effectively? But, in real time, when you’re experiencing those radical voices, and they say things that are outrageous or ridiculous, the tendency is to be dismissive of them or to find them ridiculous.
lilla: I see that. But, every time I look at a documentary, say, about the civil-rights movement or about the African-American experience, and it comes to the sixties, and Stokely Carmichael comes on, I’d follow him anywhere.
remnick: Because of what he’s saying or because of his magnetism?
lilla: His magnetism, and his willingness to call a problem what it is. And to not beat around the bush. He was extraordinary. And so when you see a clip of him next to Dr. King, King pales. Do I think that Stokely Carmichael and the groups he represented did anything to help persuade white America about race? I don’t think so. And I think Dr. King did. Though the appeal for me, just given my personality, is—
remnick: Wait, wait, wait. In fact, a lot of white kids went down south to follow Stokely Carmichael, every bit as much as Martin Luther King, and leaders of S.N.C.C.—
lilla: Oh, if you’re talking about white liberals, yes. I’m talking about the attitudes toward race of other sorts of people.
remnick: So, here we are. How are any of us reaching broad numbers of people among Trump voters, among Republican voters. Or is it folly?
lilla: Well, as long as we think of ourselves as groups and think—as the Democratic Party is, which has me worried—that now they have to just add another group, or shift to another group, which is the white working class, we’re not going to get anywhere. The big changes in political life and consciousness in this country have come when a vision, again, of what we are as a country comes along, so that we can identify, no matter what group we come to, with the aspirations of that. It doesn’t mean that we say it’s the reality.
remnick: What counsel would you then give to the university, to public radio, to a magazine like ours—to what, certainly in the popular vision, is seen as the coastal, blue audience rather than the rest of the country?
lilla: Well, in journalism and for students, I suppose that’s a different question. But one thing that I’ve said to students is you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone. You’ve got to go to places where the Wi-Fi sucks, where you have no desire to take a picture of your dinner, where you’re sitting at dinner with people who have their heads bowed in prayer in thanks for that dinner, and they aren’t terribly worried about whether spaghetti and meatballs is cultural appropriation. That’s what you’ve got to do. And, if you can’t do that physically, you have to do that mentally. And so the challenge is for us. Can we get enough out of our own heads to not just treat the people who aren’t part of our circles as yet another group—
remnick: You think narcissism is at the center, then, of the problem.
lilla: Narcissism that’s fed by the fact that we’re a class-ridden society—class-ridden and also now geographically divided. We need to start thinking about the principles we hold that they also hold. We can’t do that by demonizing them and thinking that they’re all hopeless racists and reactionaries. Because that’s a comforting myth. Because then you don’t think you have to do anything but lay back, get behind your laptop, and send off some tweets.
remnick: Are you describing the President or are you describing liberals here?
lilla: [Laughs.] I guess I’d charge both of them with that. But we need to get back to our principles and also tell other people’s stories. By going out there and understanding just what it’s like.
remnick: Mark Lilla, thank you very much.
lilla: That was fun, thanks.